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FROM AMIT ROY London Published 07.09.01, 12:00 AM
London, Sept. 7 :    London, Sept. 7:  Baz Luhrmann, director of the musical Moulin Rouge, gave a huge plug to India and to Indian cinema when he addressed a packed audience at the National Film Theatre in London yesterday. 'I was directly influenced by Bollywood and I am very, very happy about it,' he said. 'I owe much to my experiences in India.' Moulin Rouge, one of the biggest films of the year, has already been seen in India, but it goes on general release in Britain only today. 'Indian films have had a direct, direct influence on me - the cultural mix is clear,' said Luhrmann, who is also known for two other hits, Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. He repeated himself to emphasise what he clearly feels is his debt to India: 'I don't want to be seen as stealing someone else's culture but I owe much to my experiences in India and was directly influenced by them. The influence is clear in Moulin Rouge,' he went on. The NFT has just about the most discriminating film audience in Britain, and so Luhrmann's words will have some influence on opinion-formers in the world of cinema. Since the film opened the Cannes film festival in May, the Australian-born director has been travelling the world with his leading lady, Nicole Kidman, also an Australian, promoting the $50-million movie. The break-up of her marriage to the actor, Tom Cruise, has focussed attention on her - and indirectly on the film which has earned back its costs. After a preview last night of Moulin Rouge at the NFT, Luhrmann did a 90-minute question-and-answer session under the auspices of what is called 'The Guardian Interview'. By now a veteran and entertaining performer on the subject of Moulin Rouge, the 39-year-old director was emotional only once, when he was asked about his links with India. 'Forget Cannes,' he said, when asked to comment on the film's release in India ahead of the bigger markets in the west. 'Nothing can match the magic of the Indian premiere.' In particular, he remembered being heavily garlanded, including once by an elephant, which also happens to be a running motif in his film. The story is about a courtesan in the Moulin Rouge, a Paris night club, at the end of the 19th century, and her love for a poor writer in preference to a rich financier. The writer produces an Indian plot for a musical in which a courtesan spurns an 'evil Maharajah' for a 'penniless sitar player'. The film was shot almost entirely on a set in Sydney which recreated the Bohemian quality of Montmarte in Paris. Luhrmann said he was once 'seconded' to Peter Brook's production in France of the Mahabharata. He disclosed his first brush with Indian cinema occurred a few years ago in Rajasthan. He could not name the movie he saw but it involved two brothers in love with the same girl. Though he did not understand Hindi, he had no difficulty in following the story. What impressed him most was the infectious audience enthusiasm, which was unlike anything he had witnessed anywhere else in the world. 'I went to see the film in an icecream picture palace,' he recalled. He also remembered the huge audience. 'How involved the audience was and the movie was three and a half hours long. Could we get to do that in the west?' He reminded the NFT audience: 'India has the biggest film industry in the world, bigger even than Hollywood. The great thing about India is that western movies do not do that well in India.' He had obviously studied the Bollywood genre, which he said was obvious when anyone saw Moulin Rouge, with its song and dance routines, fantasy sequences and lush settings. 'I have also used a Bollywood hit song called Chhumma Chhumma,' he emphasised. At a more personal level, he owed another debt to India, which he visited when nothing seemed to be going right in his life. 'Many, many years ago, when I had lost interest in work and life, India restored my spirit. It brought about a real change. It was a big chapter in my life.' Luhrmann now gives himself another seven years of active movie-making. 'I want to return to India to work with Indian musical producers. I would like to work with Hindi pop.' Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, he, too, has discovered the world of catchy filmi numbers. 'They are great,' he enthused. At Glasgow airport yesterday, he was warmly greeted by an Indian girl, who had come to study computer science in Scotland. 'She said, 'I have come from Delhi. I loved Moulin Rouge'.' In relation to nothing, Luhrmann suddenly asked the almost exclusively white NFT audience: 'Anyone here seen Lagaan?' 'Yes,' shouted a lone Indian woman. 'We're showing the film in December,' he was assured by Geoff Andrew, the NFT programmer who was doing the interview with Luhrmann on stage. Luhrmann intended to see the film, which had won over his co-producer in Moulin Rouge. For the benefit of the NFT audience, he enacted the scene in which a low-caste youth discovers his withered hand could be used to turn the ball. 'Spin bowler,' a delighted Indian audience had applauded, according to his co-producer. 'The Indians beat the English at cricket,' exulted Luhrmann. For once, it was the Australian in him gloating.    
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